History and place are very much intertwined within Tolkien’s writings. The land itself seems to contain an imprint of people and events. For example, upon being woken by Bombadil, Merry exclaims, “...I remember! The men of Carn Dum came on us at night, and we were worsted.” And as the hobbits and Gandalf pass Weathertop on the way home to the Shire, Frodo feels a darkness overcome him and urges his companions to hasten away from under its’ shadow.
Other places are named for the shadow that lurks there, for example Cirith Ungol, the spider’s pass. In it lurks Shelob, the last descendant of Ungoliant, the giant spider that destroyed the two trees of Valinor. Gandalf is dismayed by the news that Frodo and Sam have chosen this path in much the same way that Theoden and Company are taken aback upon learning that Aragorn has taken the Paths of the Dead. Places within Middle Earth also change names as they decay, Minas Ithil becoming Minas Morgul, Greenwood the Great into Mirkwood, but also as they change in response to the growing presence of darkness in the world, such as Minas Anor becoming Minas Tirith, and Laurelindorenan becoming Lothlorien. The names of places are much more powerful in Middle Earth than in today’s world, perhaps because every place we visit does not have a well-known history spanning the ages. This also extends to aspects other than names, it is mentioned that both the pit of orcs at Helm’s Deep and the sit of the burning of the winged steed of the Nazgul remained forevermore bare of grass, while the burial mound of Snowmane, Theoden’s horse, is always covered in green grass.
This linking of history and place I think is a big reason why I enjoy the books so much. I am very interested in the history of places, and, more specifically, places that have history. For example, I chose a dorm with a hundred years of history over a brand new dorm simply because the older one had more history. Living in a place that has had so many previous occupants is a real joy; you can almost feel the impact of history in each room. I can imagine that living in Tolkien’s world would be much the same, but with thousands of years of history instead of a hundred.
This linkage also appears in the connection between the characters and the lands they travel; this depth to the story has the characters always looking back on the past as we venture forward into Middle Earth, and this also causes an air of sentimentality that is prevalent thoughout the story. As Aragorn sings the Lay of Leithian, recounting the story of the meeting of his distant ancestors, also mirrors the meeting of himself and his future wife Arwen, he sits near the site of Amon Sul (Weathertop), a principal garrison of the former Kingdom of Arnor, which he is destined to inherit the ruling of. For Aragorn, his history is deeply linked to the land, and he is deeply reverent to many sites, from Cerin Amroth, where Aragorn pledged to marry Arwen, to the pillars of the Argonath, marking the ancient bounds of the kingdom of Gondor. These episodes, to me at least, highlight Aragorn as not just a traveler to these places, but an integral part of them.
The preponderance of long-lived characters likely heightens the use of sentimentality by them. Many lament the many pains they have witnessed, and talk of all that has been lost, e.g. Galadriel, Treebeard, et al. Treebeard in particular bemoans the shrinking of the great forest of Eriador and the loss of the Ent Wives after the destruction of their gardens. Tom Bombadil is a notable exception to this sentimentality; while he does reminisce about the many events that have surrounded his land, it is never in a tone of longing. It is likely that, in much the same way the Ring had no power over him, the memories of time past do not have the same effect on him as they do to others, and that he is truly the “Master” of his emotions as well as of his little land.
This long spanning connection is painful to most other players in the story, such as Elrond, who have seen many things and people pass away over his tremendously long life., including the destruction of both Beleriand and Numenor, the latter partially bought about by the descendants of his brother. This is highlighted by Aragorn admonishing Bilbo for singing about Earendil while at Rivendell, as it is quite likely that the loss of his father to the heavens must surely have caused Elrond great pain, but brought much hope to Middle Earth with the rising of the star Gil-Estel.
Extricating myself from Tolkien’s greater legendarium, and focusing on the events of the Lord of the Rings we see one who loses the most in the aftermath of the War of the Ring, Frodo. It is striking how Frodo reacts to life in the Shire after the Scouring. He, more than anyone else, was fighting solely to protect the place he loved. Despite this, after his return he slowly “falls out” of life in the Shire, fading into the shadows as Merry, Pippin and Sam develop large roles in Shire society. This fall, after having setting out on the quest of the Ring to save the Shire, is certainly in my mind the most poignant event in the trilogy. It’s poignancy strengthened, not because it is a magical land, like Rivendell or Lorien, but a place one can relate to, especially if they grew up in a rural area, as I did.